11 December 2013

Would Steve Jobs endorse Lenovo?

Source: ABC News
Celebrity techies have become the latest weapon in a brand's arsenal these days. Alicia Keys has been the creative director of Blackberry.  Shakira was recently named a T-Mobile collaborator (whatever that means).  Last month it was the turn of Ashton Kutcher to be named a Lenovo product engineer.

At what point does a brand move beyond its 'circle of acceptability', and fall into the swamp of credibility snap?

I've noticed snide commentary in the blogosphere about Lenovo smoking pot and pouring good money down the drain in an attempt to be relevant to the Millennials who form the future of its business. After all, this is the guy who plays Steve Jobs in a movie, then in the same month that it comes out, ditches Apple for Lenovo.  A class act, Mr Kutcher ...

But hang on; let's not be so quick to draw knives.  Celebrity endorsements come in all kinds of packages.  Some are ill-conceived from the start, with the celebrity (or in some cases, a celebrity-studded team) sharing little in common with the endorsed brand by way of values.  Others begin their shared journey with loads of promise: Who would have imagined Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods would become undone the way they did?  Then there are the endorsements that have – touch wood – gone very well to date. WILL.I.AM is a case in point.

The multifaceted entertainer (who was born William Adams), frontman of The Black Eyed Peas, has demonstrated his marketing savvy and entrepreneurial nous by cultivating a reputation not as mere pitchman or conventional investor – but as a sounding board and collaborator in the true sense of the word.  He has become a source of ideas and insight for the likes of Intel (where he has an employee badge and the title of Director of Creative Innovation), Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch ... a one-man focus group if you will, a futurist for hire.  For Coca-Cola, Adams was the catalyst and prime mover of an innovative recycling program dubbed Ekocycle (the name, Adams' idea, begins with "Coke" spelled backwards).

But I digress: back to Mr Kutcher. In spite of his high-profile relationship and break-up with actress Demi Moore, there are reasons to give us hope that this alliance with Lenovo will be more successful. Kutcher is a self-professed techie and longtime technology investor (he's made significant investments in Foursquare and Flipboard). He breaks bread with the likes of Jack Dorsey, Sean Parker, Daniel Ek and Shawn Fanning, all pillars of the tech world's glitterati. He majored in engineering in college (though he admits that, like the man he played in Jobs, he dropped out before graduation).  And he has signalled, at least, an appropriate humility and intent to learn the innards of the brand he now champions, by travelling to Beijing to spend time with Lenovo's R&D team. 

"My first job" he says, "is to learn as much as I can, and to really spend a lot of time with the products. I am going to gain insight, and then try and apply some of the things I know about consumer software and technology to the hardware devices." 

Will the Kutcher alliance prove to be an inspired marketing move by Lenovo?  That will depend on whether the brand's marketers and Kutcher's minders can find some common ground, a confluence of the star's personal objectives and the company's brand objectives. The best celebrity endorsements result when a brand doesn't try to involve the celebrity in its brand story, so much as it strives to involve itself in the celebrity's story. (After all, that's what turns the consumer's crank.) 

Ashton Kutcher famously beat CNN in a very public race to garner 1,000,000 Twitter followers back in 2009 ... so like him or not, the man's got some cred. He can be much more than just a shill for moving boxes.  Provided he can keep his personal life on the public back burner, Lenovo's got a chance to make something big with this.  The brand is displaying a Challenger mindset and making bold moves to consolidate its momentum in the marketplace – a growth spurt that has seen it leapfrog all competition to become the #1 computer company in the world. It's leveraging thought leadership to cement its market leadership, keeping itself visible in the jungle out there.

03 January 2012

Why Companies are More Social than Responsible about Corporate Social Responsibility

Source: Getty Images
Have you noticed how companies are falling over themselves these days to 'go green'?  Time was when all corporations cared about was how much they were in the black.  Anyone displaying a smidgen of environmental consciousness would have been labelled a 'tree-hugger' and marginalised as a contender.  Companies paid lip service to corporate social responsibility (CSR) ... and were sometimes more social than responsible about it.

Today the pendulum has apparently swung.  'Conscience movies' (remember Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth'?) and assorted angst over global warming have all served to raise the awareness of our fragile planet to tipping-point levels.  Companies are much more inclined to wrap their brand and their product in a green sheen.  You could be easily be lulled into thinking it's St. Patrick's Day.

But peel away the patina, and you'll find few companies tracking sustainability metrics to purposefully position themselves for the future.  Beyond token attempts to impose emission controls or measure a corporation's carbon footprint, there are precious few efforts to reduce the energy content of its products or raw material consumption; no investment in more fuel-efficient company vehicles; little reduction in energy consumption in commercial buildings (which actually use more energy -- and contribute more to global warming -- than cars, trucks and buses combined). 

What's wrong with this picture?  Why aren't companies (and consumers) all that they want to be?   I think there are two main reasons.

First, consumers want corporations to do the right thing -- but right now, they just don't want to pay for it.  This isn't to say that all the research on ethical consumerism is wrong.  It's just that individuals tend to dramatically overstate the importance of social and ethical responsibility when it comes to their purchasing habits.  To put it bluntly, there's a gap between what people say, and what they do. (When BP's Deepwater Horizon rig spilled millions of tonnes of crude oil off the Gulf Coast, how many of us stopped filling up at BP?)

For more ethically oriented consumption to take hold (which in turn would give companies more reason to be socially responsible), I believe consumers need to become more knowledgeable participants in the equation. Firms need to help their current and future customers become more socially conscious in their purchasing.  Anita Roddick was far-sighted enough to recognize this way back in 1976 when she founded The Body Shop.  It took some time and consistent communications, but today the company is the second largest cosmetics franchise in the world, with 2,4000 stores in 61 countries.

The lesson is clear: Brands have an opportunity to play into the needs of consumers to be human beings, to be global citizens, and -- through their brand choices -- to do the right thing.  Give them that chance, and you'll build their spirit while earning their loyalty.

The second -- and far more critical -- reason why some companies aren't as green as they seem, is this: There simply isn't alignment between brand strategy and business strategy.

I recall the time, in one of my previous marcom roles, when I wanted to print a brochure in bulk using recycled paper; the moment my boss realized it would add 50% to the printing costs, he nixed the plan.  Businesses have always been ready to embrace corporate social responsibility -- as long as it doesn't hurt them.

How can you tell if your company suffers from such a dynsfunction?  Fairly easily, actually: CSR leads who report into the HR department, and don't carry any quantitative, business-related KPIs.  LOB heads who don't -- or won't -- sign up for CSR-related objectives.  Platitudes that pass for CSR nods in blase corporate mission statements.  Companies where these leaders bump into one another only during the annual dinner & dance.

It turns out that companies, like trafffic lights, turn green when it's time: You just can't rush these things.

There is, however, hope.

Some companies have taken the very hard first steps on their journey towards true corporate social responsibility.  They have executed the first (and in some cases, the second) of what to me are the four key milestones on the road to sustainability:

1.The promise (they commit to the ideal)
2.The plan that communicates how they will make the change
3.The implementation of the programme
4.The measurement and report on performance

Their achievement is simply this -- in order to present the image of a business that cares about people and our planet, they actually became businesses that cared about people and the planet.  They took time out to weigh the importance of the sustainability conversation, and then they took a stand.  These organizations decided on a position, and they took pains to translate and communicate that decision internally and externally.  This commitment to People, Planet and Profits is, in essence, the Triple Bottom Line (3BL) approach.

Banyan Tree Resorts is a terrific example of how the 3BL has created a growing business that enriches both the society around it as well as the environment. In the early 1990s, Ho Kwon Ping purchased 600 acres of coastal land in Phuket, Thailand that was punctuated by lagoons of the most intense cobalt blue -- only to discover that its beauty came not from Mother Nature, but the pollution of a previous tenant, a tin mine.  Rather than walk away, the company dedicated itself to cleansing the acid-laden soil and planting 7,000 trees.  Their dedication to an ecologically sound resort helped nurture damaged coastal land back into a living ecosystem.  Their reliance on the local community, not just for fair-waged staffing but also for produce, meant livelihood for the people in the neighbourhood.  Banyan Tree's 3BL approach grew the economy around its business; and has catapulted its brand into nine countries across the globe.

Patagonia, dubbed the "coolest company on the planet" by Fortune magazine in 2007, has earned its sustainability stripes by holding and imposing some tough principles on itself and its suppliers.  A prime example is the company's stand on conventionally grown cotton -- an environmentalist's nightmare, since it is heavily dependent on noxious pesticides and defoliants.  Patagonia decided to switch to organic cotton in 1994 -- even though it cost 50% -100% more than regular cotton, and 20% of Patagonia's business came from cotton products.  The gamble paid off: After a tense 18-month transition, the market voted, Patagonia's sales rose 25%, and more importantly, an organic-cotton industry was established, allowing other companies to cross over. Today, the company continues to ignore fashion trends, and tells its customers that "the more you know, the less you need". In spite of this -- or perhaps because of it -- the brand has achieved cult status; and is sometimes referred to, by its fans, as Patagucci or Pradagonia.

All told, a company can do well by doing good. But corporate social responsibility is not an overnight bolt-on that can earn an organization some cheap marketshare points.  It requires some heavy lifting and real commitment in order for a company to come across as credible and authentic.  I reckon the more enlightened, younger generation of knowledge workers today place a premium on working for a company that has a clearly stated vision around this.  It matters to them.  And increasingly, it matters to the market.

So ultimately, the question isn't "Can we afford to do this?"  But rather, "Can we afford not to?"

07 October 2011

Two Steves, One Legacy

You'd think he knew everybody in the world.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter were awash yesterday in black turtlenecks and sombre RIPs as the news of Steve Jobs' passing spread like wildfire across the globe.

Grown men admitted to crying. Skeptics found strange praise peppering their commentary.  People who had never met Steve, felt as if a close friend had died.  Such was the influence of the man, through the iconic products he unleashed on an unsuspecting world, that changed our world forever.

I'm one of the few people I know who's never owned a Mac. (Eight years at HP and another three at Lenovo have left me not so much brandwashed as psychologically challenged at stumping for one of Steve's sleek machines.) Yet I've willingly bought MacBooks for the rest of my family. And vividly recall the day I caught grief at the office when I brought a MacBook box to a team meeting and challenged them to design packaging that was half as elegant. 

Steve cared about the little things, you see. He possessed an uncanny ability to look at his company's products from the outside in. He believed that "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works." 

So do I think this is the end of an era, and the beginning of a slippery slide for Apple?

Well, yes and no.  There will never be another Steve. They broke the mold when his birth was done. Nobody else, I daresay, will approach his (her) life's work with the clarity of vision, the power of purpose, the instinctive decision-making and tolerance for risk-taking as Steve possessed.

But, as Steve said 10 years ago, "You’re missing it. This is not a one-man show. What’s reinvigorating this company is two things: One, there’s a lot of really talented people in this company who listened to the world tell them they were losers for a couple of years, and some of them were on the verge of starting to believe it themselves. But they’re not losers. What they didn’t have was a good set of coaches, a good plan. A good senior management team. They have that now."

The legendary CEO left more than an able deputy to take over the reins when he relinquished his position, with impeccable timing. Steve etched an imprint of his values along the hallways of 1 Infinite Loop. His persona is indelibly seared into the personality of the company. His spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple.

Today, I also think about another Steve. (Sorry, it's not Wozniak.)  Steve Prefontaine was arguably the greatest American middle-distance runner in history who, at the height of his career, held every American track & field record from the 2,000 metres to the 10,000 metres. He was recruited to the University of Oregon in 1969 and trained under legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, who had just founded a running shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports with Phil Knight, a solid if not spectacular athlete under his charge. (In 1978, the company was renamed Nike.)

"Pre", as he was affectionately called, was an aggressive runner, insisting on going out hard right from the gun, and not relinquishing leads. He once famously said,  "I'm going to work so hard that it becomes a pure guts race. If I can do that, at the end, I'll be the only one who can win it". And win races he did... by hanging on while others faltered and faded. His rare defeats included the thrilling 5,000m final at the 1972 Munich Olympics -- a race he led until the last 150m when he was passed by hard-charging Lasse Viren, Mohammed Gammoudi and Ian Stewart. 

Stadiums would erupt with cheers whenever Pre stepped onto the track. You couldn't help but watch Pre run with your heart in your mouth: He was totally committed in every race; 100% in. He liked to say, "To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice your gift."

Pre died in 1975 in a tragic car accident, on his way home from a party. He was 24 years old.

Such was the loss to the racing community, and the strength of his personal brand, that roadside memorials sprang up spontaneously. Two movies and a documentary were made about him. And Nike's leaders, who instinctively understood the enduring appeal of his humanity, created TV spots and named a building in their Beaverton headquarters after him. Pre stood for the triumph of the human spirit; and inspired a whole generation of Nike employees to regard their work and their products with more purpose and meaning.

Two Steves, with one legacy: They stood for something, and burned bright. Each in his own time made a difference in his world.  And the brands they are associated with, the people who have been inspired by them, are the better for it.

27 September 2011

The Poison of Presenteeism

Source: www.tonystone.com
You'd think we'd learn by now.  But history has a history of repeating itself.

Organizations change their leaders in a desperate attempt to goose their numbers.  Wall Street's impatience fuels the tyranny of the quarter.

Less than a year after firing Mark Hurd and eventually replacing him with Leo Apotheker, the Hewlett-Packard board has now let Apotheker go and hired former eBay chief Meg Whitman as CEO.

While intense scrutiny is expended on the words, actions and first impressions of new leaders -- who are understandably focused on external communications -- not nearly enough consideration is given to what's said and shared within the company, to shore up the impact of the upheavals on employee morale.

Half the employees within HP's PC division must be wondering if they're coming or going.  But there's no doubt where their motivation and productivity is going: down the tubes.

The contagion is universal. I'm reminded of an article in Campaign Asia which caught my eye when it came out half a year ago.  A top-10 advertising agency in Singapore had announced the hire of a new Executive Creative Director.  While I have nothing but respect for the man's creative credentials, I recall his joining remarks giving me some discomfort:

"In Singapore, we have a new CEO, client service director, and now myself as ECD. It really doesn't get any fresher than that, working together as we rip up the plan, start anew and maintain the positive feeling that comes with change."


For all
 the survivors of that beleagered agency, a new leader had arrived to make his mark, never mind if it unravelled the good work of the past 18 months.

The fact is, change is uncomfortable. Our head tells us it is a necessary part of personal growth and remaining relevant to our organizations, but our heart rebels at being dragged outside our comfort zone.  People often resist change because of one or more of the following reasons:

1. They don’t see a burning platform for change.
2. They’re not convinced that the benefits of change will outweigh the costs.

3. No one has made the effort to paint a clear description of the end-goal for them.
4. They fear change because of perceived loss (loss of control, of credibility and power, of confidence and competence, of physical space, relationships, even jobs).
5. There is inadequate leadership at the top (change leaders don’t walk the talk, or are too pre-occupied with their own future).
6. There is a lack of transparency and proactive communication.

I suspect some of my friends at HP are hurting right now, and oozing the 'poison of presenteeism'.  I sincerely hope Meg Whitman, through the sheer force of her dedication and personality, will be able to render some first aid to staunch the flow.

Because at the end of the day, it's not the people who quit and leave that you should be worried about. 

It's the people who quit and stay.

27 August 2011

Nation Branding: Japan Stands Tall

Hot on the heels of the London riots and despairing stories of organised crime in Rio de Janeiro, comes this inspiring account of honesty and extraordinary civic-mindedness from the other side of the globe: the return of hundreds of safes and valuables to their owners in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami.

Thousands of wallets and purses containing almost $30 million have been found in the debris and turned in by rescue workers and residents scouring the devastated prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima ravaged by a mighty tsunami that hit Japan on 11th March. 5,700 safes have also been washed ashore during that time. To date, about $78 million in cash and valuables have been reunited with their owners, often after arduous efforts to crack open the safes, dry and document the contents, then painstakingly track down the owners housed in hundreds of temporary shelters.

Japan Inc. may be battered and its credit rating downgraded; but its people have made the country proud and the world sit up and take notice of:

1. The Calm: Not a single image of chest-beating or wild grief captured by any newspaper, who showed magnificent restraint in their bulletins. No silly reporters. Only respectful reportage. Sorrow itself was elevated.

2. The Dignity: Disciplined queues for water and groceries. No honking and no overtaking on the roads. Not a rough word or a crude gesture. Just patience, courtesy and fortitude in the face of catastrophe.

3. The Grace: Restaurants cut prices. The strong cared for the weak. No looting in shops. People bought only what they needed for the present, so everybody could get something.

4. The Training: The old and the children, everyone knew exactly what to do. And they did just that. Hundreds of telephone agents from insurance company Aflac in Tokyo stayed at their stations and responded to customer calls from under their desks even as their office tower shook violently from the earthquake that followed the tsunami. 

5.The Sacrifice: The Fukushima Fifty stayed on selflessly at their stricken nuclear plant to pump seawater to cool the reactors, in spite of the grave risks to their own lives. How will these courageous workers ever be repaid?

6.The Honesty: When the power went off in stores, people put things back on the shelves and left quietly. Now with the return of the safes and valuables, ordinary Japanese citizens, in demonstrating their social and cultural values as a nation, are bringing out their best selves.

We should all be humbled and inspired.